Thursday, March 4, 2010

ONE BEETLE TOO MANY: Suspense in Picture Books

Dear Heather and Meg –

What a perfect line-up of books we have this month, and what an appropriate common theme—evolution. What better theme for those of us striving to evolve as writers through the work we do as readers.

I’m going to start things off by looking at Kathryn Lasky’s terrific non-fiction picture book, One Beetle Too Many, which tells the story of Charles Darwin and his extraordinary adventures. Ellen M. Roberts says, in The Children’s Picture Book: How to Write it, How to Sell it,
No course of instruction, no system for writing can illuminate the principles of effective writing for the picture book age as well as a careful study of the existing first-rate picture books can. (11) 
And this is a first-rate book to explore, whether or not one is writing non-fiction. After all, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, the basic fundamentals of picture book storytelling are the same, with the most important rule being this one: “Fiction or non-fiction, folktale or contemporary story, a picture book must be a thriller.” (52) – again, thanks to Ellen Roberts.

Let me first share with you a quick anecdote. I read this book the first time through as a read-aloud to my boys, ages 10 and 13. They sat on the rug building with Lego while I read. They never once asked to see the pictures, and when I offered, they said “No thanks, we don’t need them.” The book’s illustrations, by Matthew Trueman, are exquisite, but my kids’ response was not about the illustrations, it was about the writing. The story was so compelling that they didn’t require the pictures to make it work for them.

The question their response raised for me was this: How does Lasky do it? How does she make this story “thrilling”, and I believe the answer lies in the way that she builds tension. There is tension right from the start by alluding to a problem in the book’s title: One Beetle Too Many. As a reader I am drawn in—how can one have too many beetles, and what is the result of such a conundrum? While that question is answered in the story’s first two pages, at the page turn we are faced with another problem. Charles is a boy who, like most kids, has some trouble being the person he is expected to be. At the bottom of the third page of text Charles’ father even says to him, “You . . . will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family!”

Charles is a character I care about. He seems like such a nice, interesting, curious kid, and yet his family tries their best to turn him into someone that he isn’t. A doctor? A clergyman? Tension keeps rising as we see Charles try to meet his family’s expectations and fail. When Charles leaves on the Beagle, we are relieved—our hero is finally getting to do what he wants to do. But Lasky keeps the tension building in the conflicts between Darwin and the Beagle’s captain, Fitzroy. Again and again through the story’s middle, Darwin’s astonishing discoveries, whether they are about the nature of animals or of man, are a source for tension between himself and Fitzroy.

The book nears its conclusion when Darwin returns to England five years after setting out on the Beagle. Here, again, the conflict doesn’t stop. Yes, Darwin has become a highly regarded naturalist, he has proven himself to his family. But now, Darwin’s conflict is an internal one. His theories contradict the nearly universally held belief that the world was made in seven days, a prospect that is terrifying for many people, especially his own wife, Emma. Darwin must choose whether or not to go public with his theory, and of course, in the end, he does.

One might argue that the tension throughout the story is there simply because Lasky is reporting events that occurred in Darwin’s life, and his was a world fraught with conflict. I disagree. Yes, his life was tumultuous and fascinating, but Lasky skillfully meters out the story so that it has an arc with rising tension, a critical aspect to any successful story.

StorySleuths Tip #51: In non-fiction as in fiction, keep conflict and tension rising throughout the story to turn your picture book into a thriller.